Raising the curtain on breast cancer awareness

During National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the dramatic, inspiring story of the “Bald Ballerina” is told in the VR film The 100%.

By Sarah Murry — October 17, 2019

You are sitting in the audience of a theater, waiting for the show to start. The crowd murmurs in anticipation, the stage is dark. Suddenly the house lights flicker on, the music swells, and the curtain begins its ascent, revealing the silhouette of a beautiful ballerina. She’s close enough that you can hear the sound of her satin shoes brush the floor as she begins to dance.

Although it might feel real, the 360-degree theater is an illusion, created in virtual reality by the filmmakers at Springbok Entertainment. The Tribeca X Award-winning VR film, The 100%, reveals the story of ballerina Maggie Kudirka, whose stage four breast cancer diagnosis at age 23 and continuing battle has made her an advocate for young people with the disease. 

Kudirka, now 28 and living outside of Baltimore, Maryland, is among the 800 or so women under 40 years of age who is diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer each year. While her cancer was rare, she’s joined by more than 3 million women with a history of breast cancer in the US. In 2019, it's estimated that about 30% of newly diagnosed cancers in women will be breast cancers.

“This film embraces the power of VR technology to address important issues and bring people into another’s story,” says Joanna Popper, HP’s head of location-based VR entertainment. “It has an emotional impact.” The 100% was sponsored by HP and Intel, with HP contributing funding as well as commercial VR hardware to the project, including the new HP Reverb Pro Edition headset.

Springbok Entertainment

Maggie Kudirka on set at the filming of The 100% with DP Andrew Shulkind. To capture all of her movements in VR, Kudirka's choreography had to be contained within an 8-foot circle.

The film is a timely reminder during October’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with proceeds benefiting Stand Up To Cancer, a nonprofit founded by media and entertainment leaders that aims to accelerate the pace of cancer research and get new therapies to patients quickly. 

“Our goal was to immerse the audience because you want them to feel that there is nothing else that matters other than what is unfolding on the stage,” says Brandon Zamel, CEO of Los Angeles-based Springbok and producer of The 100%. “We all have cancer narratives in our lives, but we so rarely talk about it, because it has this taboo, especially for young people.” 

Kudirka says telling her story helps lessen the stigma around admitting that young, athletic bodies are just as fragile as anyone else’s. “Dealing with a cancer diagnosis is a scary world for anyone in their 20s, because we are told that we are healthy and young and can do anything we want,” she says. “When I was growing up, I never heard of a dancer having some kind of illness or disease. People kept their injuries a secret.”

The 100% takes you on an emotional journey as Maggie transforms into an accomplished dancer and launches her career at New York’s Joffrey Ballet Concert Group, where she’s plagued by repeated injuries, but is coached into ignoring her pain. She continued dancing even as the cancer has metastasized to her pelvis to keep her coveted spot at the professional dance company. Her suffering is made apparent with the creative use of mirrors as a symbol in the film. In one magical moment, she appears to step out of the glass, like a modern-day Alice in Wonderland. During the worst of her illness, the mirrors shatter. Poignantly reflected in the floating shards are photos of her childhood dance recitals.

Springbok Entertainment

The filmmakers of The 100% pioneered a new blend of techniques, including traditional cinematography and volumetric capture technology, to take the viewer inside Kudirka's journey.

The film makes use of the handheld controllers that are connected to the HP Reverb headset, which provide haptic feedback to the wearer at key points in the story. During her healthy years, you can dance alongside Maggie, following along with her port de bras, or arm variations. You lose the ability to manipulate the controllers when she’s injured or ill. 

The 100% was always envisioned in VR, says Springbok’s head of immersive technology Andrew Cochrane, but when the team connected with HP’s Healthcare Solutions group, the gear brought it from scrappy to “how good can this be?” he says. The filmmakers pioneered a new blend of tools and techniques, including traditional cinematography, volumetric capture technology, visual effects, and computer-generated imagery.  

“When immersive is done well, it can tap into emotions better than almost anything,” says Springbok’s chief operations officer Steven-Charles Jaffe, who produced and narrated The 100%. “This experience can live longer and with more powerful effect in a VR headset than anywhere else.” Jaffe was inspired to make the film partly as a “love letter” to his now-adult daughter, who as a teen suffered from life threatening non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In 2009, Jaffe was moved to make a short film to benefit Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where his daughter was treated. The film raised millions of dollars, and Jaffe says he hopes to do the same with The 100%.

The team has been blown away by peoples’ reaction to the film. Many have been moved to share their own or a loved one’s cancer story. “There is his incredible power in Maggie's story that seems to give people the permission to talk about it and talk about it in avery vulnerable way,” says Zamel. 

The turning point in the film for Maggie is when she has the strength and courage to take a few tentative, graceful steps in a hospital gown and socks, and realizes that she still has the ability to dance ballet. She’s transformed, before our eyes, into the “Bald Ballerina.”

Springbok Entertainment

Panoramic view of the century-old Orpheum Theater in Vancouver, where the dramatic final scene of The 100% was filmed in VR.

Today, while continuing to receive treatment for her cancer, she teaches dance and travels around the country sharing her inspiring story in talks and on social media. Kudirka spoke on Capitol Hill in 2016 about the importance of funding research for difficult-to-treat cancers. She encourages young people, especially those in competitive endeavors, to be transparent with their coaches and teachers. 

“You have to listen to your body,” she says. “Because it could change your whole life.”

Keep up with Maggie Kudirka by following her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Learn more about The 100% film on Instagram and Twitter

Here’s an easy way to donate to Stand Up To Cancer.